We Who Are Alive: The End Times On Screen

Exhibit / May 3, 2018

The Jupiter Menace by Chris Achilleos, 1982

ROBERTS: When I was about 7 or 8, one of the girls in my neighborhood explained what would happen to me if I didn’t become a Jehovah’s Witness. She said that we were all living in the “last days,” that the world was a horrible place full of sin and disease and false prophets, and that God was coming back soon to rescue His “sheep”—those baptized into the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Everyone else, including me, would burn in a fire that would engulf the entire planet. I rushed home to my parents, scared shitless. Maybe we were Jehovah’s Witnesses, I hoped, and they just hadn’t told me. But we were not, they said, my mother assuring me that God was good and the girl in my neighborhood was just trying to scare me. Neither of my parents belonged to a church at that point, although they had both been raised as Protestants (my mom a Southern Baptist, my dad a Methodist) in the South, and my mom would later become Catholic. My dad was particularly annoyed at the religious scare tactics, and told me that I had to learn how to distinguish nonsense from truth.

This was in Southern California, a hotbed of new religious frontiers in the ’60s and ’70s. I soon discovered that my best friend’s parents were evangelical Christians; I started 4th grade at a Lutheran School; I went to a Catholic high school. At the same time, the end of the world was on everyone’s lips. The collective anxiety over energy crises, hostage crises, economic crises, and the loom of mutually assured destruction was reflected in every strain of popular media, and intersected with the postwar ascendance of both fundamentalist Christianity and apocalyptic occultism, including ufology, which took a more sinister turn in the ’80s. In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973) is the first “documentary” I remember watching that captured this overall sense of mystery and terror. Although not an explicitly religious tract, it was based on Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, which claimed, conspiratorially, that God and His angels (and, by extension, the Devil) were actually powerfully advanced interstellar aliens. What followed, alongside the countless fictional offerings of the same stripe, was an apocalyptic stew of smooth-voiced exploitation narratives on Devil’s Triangles, the prophecies of Nostradamus, the Rapture and other Biblical eschatologies, and imminent societal and environmental collapse. I know it sounds grim, but that was not my sense at the time. I felt like I belonged to a secret club exposed to buried truths, and that the key to prevent doom was out there, waiting to be found.

GRASSO: Let’s talk Nostradamus, gentlemen. A fascinating figure in and of himself, Michel de Nostredame was a doctor, alchemist, astrologer, and, most important for our purposes, seer. His compilation of cryptic predictions phrased in verse, Les Propheties (1555), fascinated readers for centuries after his death. One of those readers was none other than cinema legend (and amateur magician) Orson Welles. In 1981, near the end of his life, Welles starred as the narrator and host of a film titled The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. Much like the UFO documentaries that haunted my youth, this documentary aired repeatedly on local UHF stations in the early ’80s. I was fascinated. Welles’s portentous narration (admittedly the man was in his late-career phase, when he was doing intoxicated commercials for wine and frozen peas) meshed perfectly with the self-important subject matter. Dramatizations of the historical events that Nostradamus had purportedly been proven correct in predicting (including, bizarrely, both the JFK assassination and Teddy Kennedy’s car accident at Chappaquiddick) were married to speculations of his visions of our own future circa 1981: the rise of a dictator in the East in a “blue turban” who would bring about World War III.

Again, as a kid who spent way too much time watching TV, and particularly the kind of cheap entertainment that populated the UHF airwaves, the crackpot theories that Welles and his producers spun out in this film were riveting. It was a combination of occult history and pure speculative fiction, much like the previously-discussed-in-these-pages In Search Of…, and I loved every minute of its cheap reconstructions. It was the act of placing both our history and our present in the continuum of Nostradamus’s predictions and the very clear eschatological bent of the remaining unexplained prophecies that really hit my neurotic 8-year-old self, paralyzed with Cold War fear.

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was also probably my first pop culture exposure to Orson Welles, but certainly not the last. In the next few years I’d find myself riveted by the account of the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast as told in the paperback book The Panic Broadcast by Howard Koch (as well as the tantalizing mention of the invasion from Mars hoax in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, another ’80s cable favorite). Welles’s odd little mid-’70s film F For Fake also appeared occasionally on the outer reaches of the cable dial later in the 1980s, a similarly quirky but obviously much more respectable piece of work from Welles (who in fact publicly disowned The Man Who Saw Tomorrow during one of his guest spots as host of The Merv Griffin Show). The less said about his time behind the mic as Unicron in Transformers: The Movie, the better, of course.

MCKENNA: Well, this is embarrassing—I’m not sure that we Brits actually had any kind of apocalypse culture at the time. There was no lack of hypothetical apocalypses, but as befit utilitarian post-war UK, they tended to be of the mechanical kind. That doesn’t mean we were rational—far from it—but the Britain of the time seems in retrospect almost impossibly secular, and metaphysical urges were more often than not channeled into the paranormal, which was itself often presented as being at heart a materialist outgrowth of science, as opposed to other forms of religion, which were perceived as being “cranky.” My folks were Welsh Baptist and Irish Catholic, both very lapsed, and the state religion—the Church of England—was more concerned with well-meaning do-goodery than anything as exciting as Armageddon. “God botherers” were looked upon with almost universal incomprehension. Evangelical faiths did exist, but they were still marginal. I went to the local church-run youth club at St Hilda’s Hall—despite the name, actually a ramshackle collection of prefab concrete and corrugated iron—that was run by the church, but the most church-ey it got was when they would tell the big kids off for snogging and smoking at the weekly disco and when we had a one-off puppet show about King Herod. We had our own local micro-Nostradamus—Mother Shipton—but, despite her prophecies (mostly completely apocryphal), she was better-known for the petrifying abilities of the mineral-heavy water in her cave.

Add to this that the British media landscape of the ’70s and early ’80s was controlled with what now seems almost impossible severity, and the remit to provide edifying content was fairly stringent. Mystery and terror did seem to make up about 50% of children’s programming, and even before the rigorously enforced TV watershed there were things that could be frightening, weird, and traumatic, but they worked their awful magic within the world we inhabited. And in any case, we only had three channels until Channel 4 arrived in 1982, and with so few channels and so much proscription, these things tended to pass through other, more marginal routes, despite the odd sciencey thing like Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World. Something like The Man Who Saw Tomorrow might conceivably have been shown, but if you missed it you probably weren’t going to see it again for years, as there weren’t dozens of small broadcasters endlessly recycling programs. As far as I’m aware, the In Search Of… series never made it over to us. We had In Search of the Dark Ages instead, which made an unlikely sex symbol out of Mancunian historian Michael Wood.

My own first encounter with the more extreme versions of religion you lot were probably much more au fait with didn’t come until about 1982, when the boss of a friend’s dad offered to take us both to the cinema with his family—for free! It turned out the cinema was actually a gospel hall, the film was The Cross and the Switchblade followed by a fire and brimstone lecture, and the price of admission was a terrifying interlude in which he stopped the car on a dark country lane while he and his family prayed for us in silence and refused to stop until we—scared absolutely shitless in the back seat—joined in.

ROBERTS: Interesting that you mention The Cross and the Switchblade, Richard, a go-to evangelical text from 1962 about a pastor (David Wilkerson) in New York City trying to “save” (in the born again sense) gang members and assorted delinquents. The 1970 film version you mention—with Pat Boone as Wilkerson and Erik Estrada as a street tough in his debut performance!—was shown at churches and religious venues across America—and apparently made it all the way to the UK! Evangelical Christianity had made bold strides at the time, as I’ve discussed several times before, starting with charismatic preachers like Billy Graham in the ’50s and becoming a major political force with the election of Reagan in 1980. My point being: this idea of an imminent Rapture—as described in this ridiculous fucking comic book—was and is taken as gospel by millions and millions of people, and has become, ironically, an insidious and odious realpolitik.

Oh, and speaking of “anything for a buck” Orson Welles, he also narrated the execrable film adaption of The Late, Great Planet Earth in 1979.

GRASSO: There’s one other venue for modern media prophecy that I want to talk about, and that’s the group of Sunday morning preachers back in the ’80s who would present the headlines of the day in the context of Biblical prophecy. While the Sunday morning airwaves were full of televangelists, there were two programs I regularly watched that had an explicitly prophetic bent. First there was The World Tomorrow, hosted by Herbert W. Armstrong. Armstrong had been a radio preacher back in the 1930s (this church, founded in 1933, was actually called The Radio Church of God) and he espoused a peculiar theology known as British Israelism, which stated that Anglo-Saxons and their heirs in the modern world were the lost Ten Tribes of Israel. (In later years, this set of beliefs would be mixed up in the nascent Christian Identity white supremacist movement.) Armstrong’s preaching that Hitler and Mussolini were the promised Beast of Revelation indicated that the coming Second World War was in fact the last battle as predicted in Revelation. Obviously, things didn’t quite come to pass as he predicted, but with the prosperity that came to America at the end of World War II, Armstrong moved to California from Oregon, expanded his ministry by opening a college, and eventually moved from radio to television. His TV ministry began in the mid-’60s when he changed his church’s name from the now outdated Radio Church of God to the Worldwide Church of God. His The World Tomorrow series would air in syndication from 1967 through 1994. (Armstrong himself passed away in 1986.)

A typical episode of The World Tomorrow would begin with Rev. Armstrong in his richly-appointed study (quite reminiscent, now that I think back, to the one in which Walt Disney often appeared in reruns of The Wonderful World of Disney) presenting clips from the recent news, explaining the events using Biblical prophecy. (This episode on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from 1982 is fairly typical.) Like Welles’s The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, there was an authority to Armstrong’s delivery (and surroundings!) and to the show’s production that riveted me as a child. Rewatching these episodes as an adult in 2018, of course, I see a lot of cheap stock footage and chuckle at the pseudo-heavy-metal-badassery of the paintings used to represent the beasts, horsemen, and angelic avengers of the Book of Revelation. But come on: watching this as a precocious 8- or 9-year-old child? It was fascinating.

The other current events-based Sunday morning program I watched regularly was Jack van Impe Ministries’ Jack van Impe Presents, which is still airing today online! Jack Van Impe Presents began in 1986, and featured Jack and wife Rexella (the pair had put out several albums of both preaching and music in the 1950s and ’60s) at a network news-style anchor desk, going through the events of the week and tying them to apocalyptic prophecy. The Van Impes are an important bridge from the older, prophetic televangelist tradition to the newer, Left Behind-style megachurch evangelicalism. Jack Van Impe’s theology espouses a premillennial dispensationalist apocalypse, where the Rapture occurs prior to the second coming of Christ. This strain of millenialism has become de rigueur in the evangelical world, a seen with the massive popularity of the Left Behind series starting in the mid-’90s. The Van Impe’s continuing popularity, as the root of American Evangelicalism has become poisoned by involvement in actual geopolitics, is certainly a symptom of a much more profound rot.

As a kid who was growing up (nominally) Catholic in the Northeast, these dispatches from the territory of milenniarian Evangelical Protestantism were like broadcasts from another country, kind of like the Quebecois television station we’d get from up in Sherbrooke. While the emotional histrionics of Jim Baker and the architectural majesty of George Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral were stunning in their own way, these mutated versions of the nightly news with an explicitly religious (and apocalyptic) bent were genuinely scary. Which I suppose is exactly the point: fear of God among the devout to strengthen faith.

ROBERTS: 1982’s The Jupiter Menace is another one I remember well. Narrated by George “anything for a buck” Kennedy, the “true story” tells of a catastrophic alignment of planets that will result in a tremendous earthquake in 2000—bringing the world as we know it to a spectacular end! We learn about the Chandler Wobble, sunken Atlantis, Biblical prophecy, and survivalism, another ’80s invention that continues to preoccupy unemployed white people. This was the kind of shit we watched and contemplated. We may not have swallowed it whole, but we gave it a chance. (Possibly because synth legend Larry Fast nailed the soundtrack.)

Another interesting take was 1972’s A Thief in the Night, an independent Christian film that dramatized the Rapture and the Tribulation (the shitstorm weathered by those “left behind”). Our protagonist (teenager Patty) wakes up to find herself all alone in the house, with news and radio reports of people disappearing from all over the world. There’s no budget, but it’s pretty effective, like so many “last person on Earth” narratives. There were three sequels to A Thief in the Night, and, like The Cross and the Switchblade, the films were distributed and shown in ministries throughout the country.

Think of all the disaster movies, the zombie flicks, the post-nuke horrors, the occult Antichrists we stayed up late to watch in the ’70s and ’80s after our parents caught M*A*S*H or The Love Boat. Today, the apocalypse is the sitcom, it is the soap opera. The end never comes. The end is always here.

2 thoughts on “We Who Are Alive: The End Times On Screen

  1. Being from the same side of the pond as Mr McKenna, it’s facinating to hear about how pervasive tele-evangelical apocalyptica was in American culture during the 70s. As McKenna says, the religious establishment in this country was pretty moribund during that period. However, I don’t think it’s correct to say that Britain didn’t have its own apocalypse (popular) culture at the time – The Changes, Survivors, ITV Quatermass, much of Pertwee Dr Who etc – but it tended to be fictional and not couched in religious ‘end times’ terms. It was much more about the paranormal and the unexplained over here, with the papers regularly running stories on UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, Uri Geller, the Bermuda Triangle etc, and those borderline sadistic Nationwide ‘special reports’ on apparitions and poltergeists. We definitely did have the Leonard Nimoy In Search Of… programmes over here (5.15 time slot on Midlands TV, I think), soon followed by ACC’s Mysterious World in a primetime slot. Happy days…

  2. Pingback: Young Life Out Of Balance: The Impact and Legacy of ‘Koyaanisqatsi’

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